What I read today in my inbox was a form rejection email from an agent I queried. Hardly the first, but the first in a while. I’ve been out of the rejection biz not because it’s all two-book deals or anything but because I haven’t been submitting much. So my skin had time to get all pasty and thin again, and I felt really bummed out.
But, I thought, I’ll always have reading.
My recent escapes:
Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez: This novel looks at the strata of slave society from nearly every angle: What, exactly, is the rank of a child born to a plantation owner and a house slave? When a girl is bumped up to the status of master's mistress, what sorts of favors does she owe her friends back in the slave quarters? Lizzie, the "privileged" "wench" of a "kind" master (this story necessitates many quotation marks as it problematizes many notions), has to ask herself these questions and more when she stays at an Ohio resort that caters to Southern slave owners and their black mistresses. It's a well-crafted story that steers clear of cliches but never complexity. Still, the prose were uneven and I never quite forgot that I was reading a book by a first-time novelist. I'll be picking up her next one, though.
When She Was Good by Philip Roth: My new infatuation with 1950s and '60s lit continues. This novel (the first Philip Roth I've read) is like 85 percent interior monologue, so it's good that Roth writes interior monologue well. In some ways, it's a traditional family saga about the legacy of dysfunction (although maybe that wasn't so traditional in 1967), but the structure is more wily. Roth's depiction of Lucy, a stubborn young woman determined not to relive her softhearted mother's marriage to an alcoholic, shows how being right can lead to being self-righteous, which can make you so crazy you do things that are wrong. A good lesson, although the "weak" characters don't come out much better. I was sort of left thinking, Well, I guess life's just hard. (Which makes this book sound like a giant bummer, but it was actually a page-turner.)
Wit’s End by Karen Joy Fowler: Reading this book made me wonder why Jonathan Lethem, Junot Diaz and the other fan boys get all the credit for playing with genre. Karen Joy Fowler's meta-mystery, about a woman trying to decipher the relationships between her family and a famous murder mystery writer, has just as many layers and asks just as many big philosophical questions. Set in a Santa Cruz populated by cults and clowns and 12-stepper housekeepers, the book is as colorful as any traditional mystery. By adding plot lines that take place online (but which have real-world repercussions), Fowler gets nearly sci fi while playing with ideas about doubling, wish fulfillment and even the future of publishing. But it's probably her wit and warmth toward her characters that I like the most.
Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem: Just when I thought my patience for near-future fiction was waning, Jonathan Lethem comes along and shows how it should be done: with warmth, with humor, with space-age technology that sometimes chugs along at dial-up pace, with three-legged pit bulls. As the title would imply, Chronic City meanders like a (grad student) dorm room conversation among stoners. There are conspiracy theories relating to city politics, virtual worlds, experimental art and an escaped tiger. Lethem's genius (besides quite possibly being one of the most knowledgeable, well-rounded fan boys out there) is in tying it all together. He ties it all together AND he offers glimmers of life after postmodernism without reverting to retro-ism. To Lethem, and to his deceptively dopey narrator, the point is not to dismantle the matrix and bunker down in Zion. It's to live happily IN the matrix, knowing it's a matrix, and inject all the wormy, scrappy, unpredictable, lovable reality you can.